Sort of like a Mad Max meets Indiana Jones set on a planet-wide ocean, Waterworld hit theaters back in 1995 with a surprisingly decent critical reception but unforgiving responses from the masses, resulting in a domestic box office tally just north of half of the movie’s infamouse 175 million dollar budget. Ever since, there’s been quite a bit of debate over whether the film earned money back on its huge production costs (naturally, the movie’s detractors say no, while the fans say yes, and it was a hit overseas and on video).
I’m actually surprised Waterworld bombed as it did in the U.S., given that audiences (myself included) have a predilection for big, dumb, blockbuster fun. Hey, there’s got to be an explanation for why Jerry Bruckheimer is cinema’s most powerful producer. And it’s not as if though word-of-mouth after the premiere killed the movie (Waterworld actually showed very good legs at the box office, considering its somewhat meager opening weekend).
I think part of the critical lashes stems from its budget, which led people to believe this movie would be a flop no matter what. I’ve even heard plenty of complaints from people that never every buck appeared to be on-screen. These days, you never hear such complaints because movies almost as expensive as Waterworld are becoming commonplace, which annoys me in that most blockbusters these days are packed with CGI as Waterworld was not, thus inevitably it had to be about as expensive as it was (filmed on the water, sinking sets, tough conditions, it’s a miracle the movie was even finished).
As most everyone knows, Waterworld takes place sometime in the unspecified future where the Earth has been covered by water from the melted icecaps. Kevin Costner stars as the Mariner, a Mad Max-ish loner on the ocean who’s boat boasts an impressive array of sails and devices. An opening scene introduces us to the deadly lifestyle of the open sea, with “pirates” ready to plunder and murder to get what they want.
The Mariner arrives at an atoll (a very large trading post) to trade, encounters some trouble when he refuses to stay behind and impregnate a young woman, and is thus imprisoned (and also discovered to be part fish, it turns out he’s got gill slits behind his ears and he’s got webbed feet). Just as he’s to be executed, he’s saved when “pirates” called the Smokers invade the atoll looking for a girl who apparently has a map tatooed on her back that leads the way to the mythical Dryland (whether or not such a myth existed before the girl is unknown). So said girl and her foster mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) save the Mariner, who promises to take them with him. But being a loner, he doesn’t appreciate their company. Meanwhile, the Smokers continue their hunt for the girl to continue the search for Dryland.
Even though Waterworld has a great, if also entirely implausible, premise and a fun story, it’s not driven by its script. Written by David Twohy (the genius responsible for sci-fi greats The Arrival and Pitch Black), he shows none of the ear for dialogue he displayed in those aformentioned thrillers. Inconsistency abounds in the atoller’s lifestyles, as well as their beliefs. No one (except for the Mariner) is aware that there’s ground below the water, but they never seem to question where dirt-which is a rare commodity-comes from. The movie’s got all sorts of little problems along those lines, but I don’t think they’re really worth mentioning.
What makes the movie worth watching is the adventure. The movie’s all about the search for Dryland, and the journey for it is an exciting and thrilling one. Spectacular action sequences abound, from large-scale battle sequences to boat chases. In fact, the action is the movie’s highlight. Director Kevin Reynolds’ has an eye for staging and filming fight scenes and gun battles, delivering all this action with plenty of high-energy flair and virtuoso stunts. The attack on the atoll, an eleven-minute setpiece, was 1995’s second most thrilling action sequence (right behind the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Braveheart). Also equally thrilling is the climactic battle aboard the Smokers’ tanker, which displays some of the largest pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen.
To give the adventure an extra boost, the film gives a genuine attempt at character development and actually comes off not half-bad. Kevin Costner’s basically aping Mel Gibson with his own rendition of Mad Max, and while playing a part man/part fish is pretty ridiculous, I’d have to say he’s quite sincere and convincing in the role. I’m not the world’s biggest Costner fan, but I’ll be the first in line to say he’s sorely underrated as an actor. Tina Majorino is a bit annoying as the cute girl, and I find it rather baffling that her character has Chinese characters tattooed on her back, even though she’s clearly caucasian. Dennis Hopper is a hell of a lot of fun as the Deacon, head of the Smokers, playing his role as both villain and comic relief (he even gets in a priceless scene with a fake eye). But faring best of all is the gorgeous Jeanne Tripplehorn as the requisite love interest. I’ve always been a big fan of hers, and while I wouldn’t call this a great performance, she’s full of energy and vitality as the tough, strong-willed heroine who doesn’t give in to demands so easily.
One of Waterworld’s biggest flaws is the generally cheesy acting from the supporting cast. Most everyone in this movie has a different accent (except for the leads, of course, who are distinctly American), which I assume was meant to give the flavoring of variety, but it makes the delivery of the already silly dialogue twice as silly.
That problem aside, I found myself perfectly open to Waterworld’s invigorating action and adventure. There was a lengthier version shown on network TV in the film’s broadcast premiere, which I thought made improvements on both plot and pacing (the theatrical release runs a fast-paced 136 minutes, and I think the network version is actually almost forty minutes longer). Wish I’d taped it, but hopefully it’ll end up as a special edition release on DVD.